Friday, May 20, 2016

Catholicism's calcified celibacy dogma


(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, May 18.)
On a recent Monday morning I sat at the press desk in the Wellington District Court and watched as a former Catholic priest was sentenced to six years and seven months in prison for historical sex offences.
Peter Joseph Hercock left the priesthood in the 1980s. He is 72 now, and married with a son. But in the 1970s he was a chaplain and counsellor at Sacred Heart Girls’ College in Lower Hutt.

The four women who pursued complaints against him were then pupils in their early teens. They were grappling with personal problems or came from troubled home environments – sometimes both.
They went to Hercock thinking he would help them. Instead he groomed them for his sexual gratification. He raped and indecently assaulted them in his bedroom in the Catholic presbytery and at a Kapiti Coast bach used by nuns.

One victim, then aged 14, vividly recalled a “wretched” Leonard Cohen record playing in the background as she was raped. Another was given two glasses of whisky and carried to bed.
Much as we have become accustomed to sordid stories of sexual abuse by priests, the women’s victim impact statements were painful to sit through.

All four told of long-lasting psychological and emotional damage. One had a breakdown, another tried to kill herself.
The betrayal of trust was breathtaking. One victim said her father worked two jobs to send her to Sacred Heart. His belief in the value of a Catholic education was rewarded by the rape of his virgin daughter.

She was later expelled for drinking and drug-taking. When her mother died, she didn’t attend the funeral. She was scared she would see Hercock there.
Another complainant said the girls had been taught that men couldn’t be trusted because of their lust and it was up to women not to tempt them. At the time, she blamed herself for corrupting Hercock.

As a priest, Hercock was supposedly dedicated to the care of his flock. In betraying those vulnerable girls he destroyed their faith. It’s impossible to overstate the breach of trust.
One victim said that her sense of cultural identity came from being part of a small Catholic community. Having been brought up Catholic myself, I knew what she meant.

Catholics of that era, living in a predominantly Protestant society, defined themselves by their faith. To have it betrayed by a priest would have been shattering.
Listening to the victim impact statements, I felt myself getting angry, but not so much with Hercock – he was finally getting his due punishment, after all – as with the Church that allowed this to happen.

Hercock entered the Catholic seminary at the age of 17 and was in his 20s when most of the offending took place. Few men at 17 have a clear idea of what they want to do for the rest of their life; fewer still have the emotional maturity to commit to a life of celibacy. Yet that’s what the Church expects them to do.
It is an expectation that priests often fail to live up to. The need for human intimacy isn’t easily suppressed, and when it is, it can lead to twisted outcomes.

Some priests end up having illicit but consenting relationships with women; a few even father children. Others, like Hercock, become predators.
You might call this Catholicism’s dirty little secret, except it’s not; it’s a dirty big secret. The shocking pain and guilt caused by the vow of celibacy is hidden behind a wall of silence and hypocrisy.

Before anyone accuses me of being anti-Catholic, a declaration: I’m not one of those bitter and resentful ex-Catholics. I value my Catholic upbringing; it’s a big part of who I am.
Moreover, I know far too many genuinely good and holy Catholics, priests included, to dismiss the Church out of hand.

Catholicism’s problem is that it remains in the grip of calcified, twisted dogma which is stubbornly defended by a male hierarchy that has a disturbingly ambivalent attitude toward women.
A good friend of mine who attended a Catholic girls’ boarding school says the nuns warned the girls about young priests. That confirms the Church knew some priests couldn’t be trusted to honour their vow of celibacy.

It almost makes the nuns complicit in what went on, yet I don’t entirely blame them. They were caught up in a warped system that required them to defer to male authority. In a sense, they were victims too.
An editorial on the Hercock case in the latest issue of the Listener says the Church should have been in the dock with him. That’s not an overstatement.

Despite its many apologies and payments of compensation (often given grudgingly) to victims of sexual abuse, the church still refuses to confront the harm caused by the cruel and unnatural rule of celibacy.
Other institutions change and move on when evidence of the damage done by their doctrines becomes too overwhelming to ignore. Why can’t the Catholic Church?

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Case studies in self-absorption and overkill


(First published in The Dominion Post, May 13.)
Is the world going mad, or is it just me?
On second thoughts, don’t answer that. But please consider, just for a moment, some of the issues that have been making headlines over the past couple of weeks.

First, Hilary Barry. The announcement of her resignation from MediaWorks was reported as if Earth had momentarily tilted on its axis.
Here I was thinking Barry was just a newsreader – a competent newsreader, admittedly (although her pronunciation and personal asides sometimes grate), but just a newsreader, nonetheless – someone who reads words written by other people.

Obviously I completely misunderstood her place in the life of the nation. If the media coverage of her resignation is any guide, she’s a totemic figure whose career moves are a matter of urgent and compelling public interest.
No doubt media people would justify the fuss over Barry’s resignation by saying it was the tipping point that led to the departure of the unloved MediaWorks boss Mark Weldon. But they didn’t know that then.

Even if they did, it was an example of media people being too absorbed in their own affairs, and assuming that the ordinary punter in the street shares their fascination. My advice would be to get over themselves.
In television especially, detached judgment in journalism is old-hat. The rule now is that if journalists are interested in it, it must be news.

Hence the deaths of David Bowie and Prince also dominated news bulletins. On TV3, Bowie’s demise in January took up the entire first segment of the 6pm news.
This can’t be justified by any objective measurement of public interest or importance. The reason the two singers’ deaths got saturation coverage, quite simply, is that the journalists who make decisions about what’s important are of the generation that idolises Bowie and Prince, and they insisted that everyone should share their grief and desolation.

Bowie was a unique talent, to be sure, but he hardly justified the emotional incontinence triggered by his passing. As for Prince, hmmm.
Now, the Panama Papers. After all the frenzied media coverage of the past couple of weeks, I have to ask: where’s the smoking gun, exactly?

Reporters eagerly burrowed through truckloads of leaked documents from Mossack Fonseca and came up with … nothing much at all.
The conspiracy theorists struck out here. The only damning disclosure related to John Key’s lawyer, who used his relationship with the prime minister as leverage to secure a meeting with Revenue Minister Todd McLay – a worrying blurring of the lines of propriety, but that's par for the course from a government that sometimes gives the impression of having had an integrity bypass.  

And oh, the schadenfreude. While media outlets that had been granted advance access to the latest Panama Papers leak struggled to find anything newsworthy in it, those denied that privilege (if that's the right word) took delight in pooh-poohing the whole affair as a non-event.

Hence TV3 political journalist Lloyd Burr triumphantly announced that no bomb had gone off. In other circumstances Burr, if he’s like most political journalists, would have been keen to find the bomb and detonate it himself. It was hard to escape the conclusion that he was more concerned with scoring a point against TVNZ, which was one of the media organisations that had the inside running on the release.
As for the general public, I imagine a lot of people would have switched off the moment they learned Dirty Politics author Nicky Hager was a key player in the leak. People are justifiably sceptical about those who describe themselves as journalists but pursue a political agenda.

There was a breathless post on the Radio New Zealand website about the thrill of collaborating with Hager in sifting through the supposedly incriminating documents, but RNZ and TVNZ severely compromised their credibility by aligning themselves with a man whose ideological crusades are a matter of public record. What on earth were they thinking?

For the third placing in this column’s trifecta of weirdness we must turn to the police, who have bullied two Canterbury secondary schools into cancelling after-ball parties under the threat of a $20,000 fine.
One of those parties has been run by the Ashburton Community Alcohol and Drug Service for 17 years, apparently without problems. Now the police have told the organisers they’re breaking the law.

It’s a sad commentary on law enforcement priorities that while 111 calls from victims of crime routinely go unheeded because police are supposedly too busy, they always seem to find the time and resources to crack down on soft targets.
Burglary clearance rates are a scandalous 10 per cent, brazen young thugs virtually rule the streets of South Auckland and hapless motorists are subjected to extortion by criminal windscreen washers, but don’t worry: you can rest easy in the knowledge that the police are fearlessly cracking down on the organisers of harmless after-ball parties, heavying law-abiding citizens with oppressive alcohol checkpoints at all hours of the day and supplying the media with a seemingly endless procession of officers eager to lecture us on our bad habits.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

A Wicked abuse of free speech


(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, May 4.)
A good friend recently asked what I made of the fuss over Wicked campervans and their suggestive slogans.
He believes strongly in freedom of speech and knows that I do too. He thought the crackdown on the Australian-owned company looked disturbingly like a witch hunt.

Besides, he thought some of the slogans painted on Wicked’s vans were amusing. We need more irreverent humour, he argued.
I’m with him some of the way. But not far.

Where freedom of speech involves the right to express political opinions or to push literary and artistic boundaries, there is a legal presumption in its favour. It’s enshrined in our Bill of Rights Act.
But free speech has never been an absolute right. The American judge Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, for example, that it didn’t entitle someone to falsely shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre.

Limitations on free speech vary across different societies and at different times, according to what the community finds acceptable. There will often be powerful countervailing arguments, and the challenge lies in getting the balance right.
By and large, I would suggest we have it about right in New Zealand. We are certainly an infinitely more liberal society than we were 40 or 50 years ago.

The great censorship battles of the 1960s and 70s are far behind us. That was the era when the prosecutor in the famous Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity trial in Britain asked jurors whether D H Lawrence’s sexually explicit novel was one they would be happy for their wives or servants to read. His question was ridiculed as symptomatic of outdated paternalistic attitudes.
New Zealand had its own bizarre censorship controversies – none stranger than the film censor’s ruling in 1967 that a film adaptation of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses had to be screened separately to male and female audiences.

These days it probably comes as a surprise to many people to learn that we still have a censor – which brings us back to Wicked.
A couple of weeks ago, chief censor Andrew Jack ruled that the slogans and images on three Wicked campervans were objectionable and banned those vehicles from New Zealand roads.

It’s unlikely to be the end of the matter. Further complaints may result in other vans from the company’s fleet being ordered off the road – in which case, good riddance.
The banned vehicles were decorated with eye-catching images showing well-known cartoon figures – Snow White, Scooby-Doo and Dr Seuss – appearing to use drugs.

Other Wicked vans display sexually suggestive slogans. One was turned away from Piha Domain Camp near Auckland because it was decorated with the words “Blow job better than no job”. Camping grounds at Kaiteriteri and Queenstown have also told Wicked van renters that they’re not welcome.
The censor’s decision was unusual for more reasons than one. For a start, it’s probably the first time a vehicle has been judged to be an objectionable publication.
The ruling was also notable because it’s relatively rare these days for the censor to use such a blunt instrument as a ban. But having found that the slogans and images were offensive, Jack had few options.

Wicked posed an unusual challenge because while people make a choice to watch a pornographic movie or read a sexually explicit book, Wicked campervans are in people’s faces whether they want to see them or not. An R16 restriction is hardly effective when the vehicles use public roads and are visible to everyone.
But the censor's job was made easier in the case of the allusions to drug use, because the images could be construed as encouraging criminal behaviour. Ruling on sexually suggestive slogans will be trickier because it calls for judgment on matters of taste.
A recurring concern is that curious children, seeing Wicked vans, are likely to ask their parents what the slogans mean. Even the most liberal parent would probably struggle to explain “If God was a woman, sperm would taste like chocolate” to an inquisitive eight-year-old. But fellatio, unlike drug use, is not a crime - so the issue becomes one of defining what's injurious to the public good or highly offensive to the public in general, to quote the relevant legislation.

I not only believe the censor got it right in the case of the drug-related imagery, but that he would be justified in ruling against Wicked's use of sexually explicit signage on the basis that it's highly offensive to most people (my friend excepted).
Freedom of speech is one of the defining characteristics of a liberal democracy, but this crass and arrogant Australian outfit (I say "arrogant" because it didn't even bother to defend itself when complaints were made against it to the Advertising Standards Authority) is unlikely to go down in history as a heroic standard-bearer for human rights.

If anything, the company debases free speech by nakedly taking advantage of it purely to be provocative and to attract attention for commercial gain. In this respect it’s strikingly similar to the Hell pizza chain.
Wicked’s lawyers were unable to advance any compelling defence of political or artistic freedom. Instead, they tried lamely to justify Wicked’s slogans and images as humorous parodies.

Admittedly humour is subjective, but Wicked’s misogynistic brand of wit is hardly worth dying on the barricades for. It’s a smart-arse, advertising-agency type of humour that appeals chiefly to sniggering schoolboys.
In fact one of the striking things about the Wicked controversy is that the company’s supposed humour has managed to offend almost everyone, liberals as well as conservatives.  

My one reservation is that it was the police who took the complaint against Wicked to the censor and who will have the responsibility of enforcing his ruling. There’s a potentially dangerous blurring of roles here.
The job of the police is to enforce criminal law, and I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling uneasy about the prospect of them exercising power over matters of judgment and morality. No doubt they would argue that their intervention in this instance was justified on the basis that the campervans appeared to condone criminal activity, but I hope their involvement ends there. We get enough finger-wagging lectures from them already.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Trump v. Clinton: a democratic malfunction?


(First published in The Dominion Post, April 29.)
You have to say this much for Donald Trump: no aspirant for political office in America has created so much interest in distant New Zealand.
In fact you’d probably have to go as far back as 1964, to the contest between Lyndon Johnson and his arch-conservative Republican rival Barry Goldwater, to find a US presidential election that aroused more interest worldwide. Trump can take credit for that, if nothing else.

The difference with 1964, of course, is that he isn’t even the candidate yet. The Republican convention that will choose the party’s nominee is still three months away, but already Trump is the subject of conversation around the water coolers (or would be, if our workplaces had water coolers).
New Zealanders have watched the rise and rise of Trump with fascinated loathing and horrified disbelief. Distaste for him cuts across the usual political boundaries.

A recent UMR poll found that 82 per cent of National Party voters would back Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton over Trump. Even if it came down to a choice between Trump and Clinton’s “socialist” rival Bernie Sanders, National voters would support Sanders by a margin of 76 to 13 per cent.
New Zealanders can’t understand why so many Americans seem to love an uncouth sideshow barker. It tends to reinforce the common perception that all Americans are crass and ignorant. But America wouldn’t be the world’s strongest economic power, and the pacesetter in every field from technology through to art and entertainment, if it were populated by idiots.

We tend to forget that voting in the presidential primaries involves a relatively small number of people, and that Trump’s backing comes from a disillusioned faction within that minority. Far more Americans dislike him than like him.
A better picture of his standing among Americans generally is provided by an NBC-WSJ poll earlier this month that showed only 24 per cent of respondents gave him a positive rating compared with 65 per cent who saw him in a negative light.

So Americans don’t want Trump. They don’t want Clinton either, judging by the same poll which gave her a 56 per cent negative rating. Only 32 per cent liked her.
That leaves us with a puzzling question: how can a country so rich in human capital deliver such a dispiriting set of candidates for the most powerful office in the world?

You have to wonder whether we’re witnessing a failure of democracy. It’s not working the way it’s supposed to.
Trump and Clinton are polar opposites politically, but in their own way, each represents a democratic malfunction.

Clinton is the consummate political insider – a cold, calculating, slippery, artful schmoozer. Polls show that Americans don’t trust her, and neither should they. She can barely shut her closet door for all the skeletons rattling around inside.
Trump, on the other hand, makes a virtue of being an outsider. He feeds off a deep and widespread sense of alienation.

By posing as a man of the people, which he demonstrably is not, he has harnessed resentment of the political elite. Unfortunately, not being part of the political establishment doesn’t, by itself, give him presidential credentials.
And what of the other contenders? There’s Sanders, whose pitiful ignorance on crucial policy issues was shockingly exposed in a recent newspaper interview. And then there’s Ted Cruz, a repugnant Texan fundamentalist who manages, against the odds, to be even less attractive than Trump.

How has it come to this? How could American voters be faced with a choice between candidates so few of them want?
And what happened to the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F Kennedy? All articulated noble visions for their country, even if their personal lives – especially in the case of the alley-cat JFK – didn’t always bear close scrutiny. But we’ve heard little in this presidential campaign that has been either noble or visionary.

Democracy seems to be on its knees in Australia, too, where the brazenly opportunistic Malcolm Turnbull seized power last year from a wounded Tony Abbott and is now floundering in the polls himself, raising the prospect of yet more political convulsions in a country that’s starting to make Italy look like a model of stability.
There are common factors here. Democracy, supposedly the property of the people, has been hijacked. Power now resides with elites, factions, spin merchants, wealthy donors, lobbyists and politically partisan media outlets.

It hasn’t happened here, at least not on the same scale – but that’s not to say it won’t.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Paekakariki to Pukerua Bay, via Texas


Yesterday, with my daughter and two grandsons, I walked the recently opened Paekakariki Escarpment Track, aka the Stairway to Heaven – the 10-kilometre walkway linking Paekakariki and Pukerua Bay, north of Wellington. It’s described as one of the highlights of the Te Araroa Trail, the 3000km network of tracks stretching from Cape Reinga to Bluff.
The Escarpment Track had been in the news only days before when a 62-year-old man, walking it on Anzac Day, collapsed and died. Although police said at the time that they weren’t sure whether his death was the result of a medical event or a fall, a follow-up report today gave the clear impression he suffered a heart attack.

Either is certainly possible. The Te Araroa website describes the track as steep, narrow and exposed, all of which is true. It rises from near sea level to 220 metres and there are 492 steps. Some of the stepped sections are very steep and it’s not hard to imagine someone stumbling or tripping, in which case they could fall a very long way. There are no handrails and the website suggests you shouldn’t attempt the walk if you suffer from vertigo. An additional complication is that apart from the high point of the track, which is accessible across farmland by 4WD vehicle, there’s nowhere for rescue teams or a helicopter to quickly reach anyone in trouble.
People shouldn’t be deterred by publicity about the death, but they should take heed of the warnings. Judging by a couple of the walkers we saw yesterday, some people tackle the track not realising how challenging it is. It’s not a casual stroll and it’s certainly not practical for dogs, although the website makes no mention of them.

But it is a spectacular walk, and I’d like to do it again in better weather. Yesterday, unfortunately, was overcast and cool, with a cold, blustery wind. On a still, sunny day the views would be sensational.
The website suggests you allow 3-4 hours. We did it in slightly less than three without rushing. Paradoxically, we would have taken longer had the weather been better, because we would have spent more time enjoying the views while we ate lunch.

I’m pleased to say the grandsons, aged 10 and 7, did it uncomplainingly and probably had more gas left in the tank at the end than I did. As we approached the finish in Pukerua Bay the younger of the two startled his mother by bursting into Deep in the Heart of Texas, which I put down to a recent stay at our place during which they enjoyed a DVD of The Muppet Show featuring Roy Rogers. Teaching them appreciation of the outdoors is one thing, but you have to ensure their cultural needs are met as well.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Agenda-driven reformers untroubled by human consequences

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, April 20.)

The American economist Milton Friedman once said that it’s a great mistake to judge things by their intentions rather than by their results.

Unfortunately it’s a mistake repeatedly made by agenda-driven reformers on a mission to create the perfect society. A Radio New Zealand Spectrum programme brought one such instance to public attention earlier this month.
Until 2007, intellectually disabled people in New Zealand were exempted from minimum wage laws. This meant they could be employed doing menial work in facilities known as sheltered workshops.

It was a system whereby thousands of New Zealanders who were incapable of holding down proper jobs were nonetheless able to occupy themselves each day doing simple, repetitive work.
They were paid only a token sum, but the money wasn’t important. What really mattered was the companionship they enjoyed in the workplace and the satisfaction they got from having a job to go to each day.

It was an arrangement long supported by the IHC (originally the Intellectually Handicapped Children’s Society) and by parents with working-age disabled children. The IHC was itself the country’s biggest operator of sheltered workshops.
Then ideology intervened. Disability became politicised.

Sheltered workshops may have admirably met the needs of those working in them, but reformers looked at them and saw only exploitation and discrimination. 
Where others saw contented workplaces, left-wing activists saw a vulnerable minority being deprived of their rights. Sue Bradford, then a Green MP, called it “systemic oppression”. 

Pumped up with reformist zeal, the Labour government in 2007 repealed the Disabled Persons Employment Promotion Act, which since 1960 had allowed disabled workers to be employed for less than the minimum wage.
A system was adopted whereby everyone working in sheltered workshops was individually assessed to see whether they were capable of mainstream employment at normal pay rates. Those who were judged incapable were given a continuing exemption from the minimum wage law.

The IHC applauded. It too had been ideologically captured. Over opposition from many of its bewildered members, the IHC seized the opportunity to shut down 76 workshops and “business units”.
In Blenheim, locals were so appalled by IHC’s plan to sell a nursery and plant centre which employed intellectually disabled workers that a community trust was set up to buy the business and keep it going.

Part of the problem was that the IHC itself had changed radically. Originally an organisation run largely by parents and volunteers, it had evolved into a government-funded Wellington bureaucracy led by disability-sector careerists.
The reforms had predictable consequences. True, a minority of the more “able” disabled found paying work. But the closure of those sheltered workshops deprived hundreds of intellectually disabled people of the satisfaction of going to work each and enjoying the camaraderie of others.

Despite extravagant promises, no satisfactory form of alternative activity was found for most of those tipped out of work.
Where previously they had delivered firewood, done ironing, mowed lawns, made letterboxes, worked in garden centres and sorted goods for recycling, they now watched TV, sat idly in “day bases” or went for walks. This was euphemistically called community participation.

In many cases, denied constructive work, their behaviour deteriorated. Some became difficult to manage.
Parents and caregivers were left bitter and disenchanted. Many felt betrayed by the IHC, the very organisation they looked to for support.

Of course none of this directly affected the well-paid ideologues, politicians and bureaucrats in Wellington, who were safely insulated from the consequences of their policies.
Now it seems the reformers aren’t satisfied with the damage already done in the name of bogus “inclusiveness”. As Spectrum reported, the exemption permits issued to more than 800 disabled workers nationwide are now under threat of cancellation.

This is presumably Phase II of the project commenced in 2007 – the final solution, if you like.
Let’s give the reformers the benefit of the doubt and assume they want to create an ideal world in which no one is disadvantaged.

The problem is, they’re willing to make people suffer for it to happen. 
Spectrum focussed on Southland Disability Enterprises in Invercargill, one of a small number of independent sheltered workshop operators that continued to function after IHC abandoned the field.

The 80 disabled people working at SDE were all issued with exemption permits, but now the government wants to cancel those permits. If that happens, SDE will cease to be viable and the people who happily work there will be out of jobs. This is madness.
The Wellington bureaucrat driving the change explained that exempting disabled people from the minimum wage law was “out of step with modern thinking”.

She went on to pronounce that people with disabilities mustn’t be treated differently from others. Problem is, they are different. Or perhaps she hasn’t noticed.
And what’s being offered in return? Nothing at all, if you unpicked the bureaucrat’s vague and non-committal reference to possible subsidies, employment supports and training schemes.

I was reminded of the far-fetched promises made in 2007, when the reformers cruelly misled intellectually disabled people with phantasmic visions of the fulfilling new life that awaited them.
I wonder what National’s Invercargill MP Sarah Dowie (no, I hadn’t heard of her either) is doing to save the jobs of the SDE workers. This is her government, after all. Or do politicians find it too hard to resist agenda-driven public servants? If that’s the case, we’re in deep trouble.

I started this column with a quotation, so I’ll finish with another one – this time from the great Christian writer C S Lewis, who memorably said: “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.”

Saturday, April 16, 2016

A bit rough and ready, but who cares?


(First published in The Dominion Post, April 15.)
You get spoiled living in a small (well, smallish) town like mine. For instance, you expect to find a parking place right outside the place you’re going to.
I have also come to assume that I can turn up at the local movie theatre only minutes before the film starts and not worry about finding a good seat. On one occasion there was just me and the projectionist.

Two Sundays back, though, an unimaginable thing happened. I turned up five minutes before screening time and the theatre foyer was jammed with people.
There was a queue ahead of me, and when I got to the counter I heard words I never thought I’d hear in the Regent 3: “We’re sold out. Do you want to come back another time?”

I reeled out on to the street, numb with shock. My vision was blurred and my breath came in convulsive gasps. I self-diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.
But we’re a resilient lot out here in the provinces, so I tried again the following Thursday night. Same film.

There were only four people ahead of me at the box office. Things were looking good. But when I walked into the actual cinema – phwoah! The place was packed.
I had to go right down the front. Then more people arrived, and we all had to move over and squeeze up to make room.

You’ve probably guessed by now that the film was Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
Taika Waititi’s latest film has created a real buzz. It’s a crowd-pleaser in the tradition of Geoff Murphy’s Goodbye Pork Pie, and like Murphy’s film it’s unmistakeably and unapologetically a New Zealand movie.

It’s also, like Goodbye Pork Pie and Sam Neill’s first film, Sleeping Dogs, a bit rough and ready, which kind of adds to its charm.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say it looks as if Waititi made the film up as he went along, but he certainly didn’t bother to smooth off the rough edges.

The opening scene, for example, shows a police car speeding along a remote gravel road and splashing through puddles. But when it pulls up at its destination, it’s sparkling clean.
Film crews are supposed to include a continuity person to ensure consistency between scenes, but the pristine police car was either missed or ignored.

Audiences might also have observed that the two dogs that accompany the Sam Neill character, Hec, and his young companion Ricky appear in some scenes but are inexplicably absent from others.
Then there are the sudden striking changes of scenery. I don’t know of anywhere in New Zealand where you can step straight from dense, sub-tropical rain forest onto a barren, Desert Road-type alpine landscape, but they do it in Wilderpeople 

It took me back to the embarrassingly bad 1964 New Zealand film Runaway, in which the action abruptly shifted from the coastal sand dunes of Northland to the Southern Alps, as if only a short drive separated them. Even as a 14-year-old, I cringed.
But Runaway purported to be a serious film. Wilderpeople can be excused because it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a lot of fun.

Part of the humour comes from the affectionate nods to other New Zealand movies – among them Goodbye Pork Pie, but also Smash Palace.
Waititi (who plays a wicked cameo as a deranged church minister) even managed to include a tribute to the famous Crumpy and Scotty Toyota Hilux TV ads. Lloyd Scott himself appears briefly as a startled tourist whose photo-taking is rudely interrupted by a rampaging 4WD.

There’s no doubt Waititi is a freakish talent, but we already knew that from Boy and What We Do in the Shadows.
Boy was misleadingly labelled as a comedy but was really a sad film with comic moments. Wilderpeople is the reverse – a comedy with some laugh-out-loud scenes and one or two sombre interludes.

Thank God we seem to have finally grown out of those bleak, dark New Zealand films that Neill labelled the cinema of unease.
As Ricky, the funny but troubled Maori kid whom Neill’s character is reluctantly saddled with, Julian Dennison is the star. But Neill anchors the film, even if his portrayal of the cantankerous Hec lapses slightly at times.

Neill is our one true international A-list actor. It says a lot about him that he still spends much of his time in New Zealand and gets obvious pleasure from old-style, seat-of-the-pants Kiwi filmmaking.
Good on him. He seems a genuinely nice man - the sort of A-lister we're happy to claim as one of us.